Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Gourmet Detective by Peter King

Peter King wrote eight books about the English chef turned food consultant Goodwin Harper between 1994 and 2003. According to Amazon, King was a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and a retired metallurgist who worked on the Apollo project for NASA. I haven’t been able to find much more about him.

Goodwin Harper emerged on the crime fiction scene just when the culinary mystery began to take hold. Goldy Bear, Diane Mott Davidson’s invention, appeared in 1990. Angie Amalfi, a restaurant reviewer in San Francisco, created by Joanne Pence, had her first adventure in 1993. Claudia Bishop released her first Hemlock Falls Inn culinary mystery in 1994. Ellen Hart published the initial mystery about Sophie Greenway, a Minneapolis food critic, in 1994. The earliest culinaries that I know of are the four books (1982-1993) by Virginia Rich featuring chef Eugenia Potter.

Unlike most mysteries about food these days, there are no recipes in the books and Harper focuses on the business aspects of the restaurant and catering industry as well as the cookery itself. When someone expresses surprise in one book at the frequency and extent of criminal activity Harper finds, Harper points out that food is big business that generates billions of dollars in revenue one way or another and wherever that amount of money is found, lawlessness is sure to be there too.

Harper markets himself as The Gourmet Detective, who specializes in locating hard-to-find ingredients, identifying substitutes for ingredients no longer available, finding markets for new products, and menu planning for special events such as Renaissance banquets. One day the owner of one of the most exclusive restaurants in London asks him to find out who is sabotaging his establishment. Deliveries are being diverted, mice show up the day an inspector is due, tax records disappear. Harper is given a generous retainer to get to the bottom of the problem. To his delight, he is invited to attend the banquet of an exclusive gourmet organization later in the week.

The night of the banquet Harper is in ecstasy at being in the same room with so many food experts and listening to them talk. Restaurant owners, journalists, celebrity chefs, they are all there. The food is outstanding and everything is going well, until one journalist falls over dead. The police arrive, examine the body, question everyone present, until the journalist sits up, clearly quite alive. The medical examiner comes in at that point and is irate at being called out erroneously. A few minutes later the journalist stands up and collapses again, definitely dead this time. The police press Harper into helping them understand the food world while the owner closes the restaurant because of the adverse publicity.

This book is fun to read, partly because of all the food descriptions but also because Harper’s hobby is crime fiction. The book is full of references to detective fiction icons, both direct and indirect. One oddity: the voice changes from first person to third person and back, something an editor should have caught. It’s still a series worth finding on the Internet or via interlibrary loan and reading from beginning to end.